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24 Famous Boston Firsts

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Given that it’s located just 40 miles from Plymouth Rock, that the city of Boston is the home to many American “firsts” is hardly surprising. What is remarkable is the sheer variety of places, procedures, and thingamajigs that originated in Beantown. Here are 24 of them.

1. FIRST PUBLIC ANTI-SMOKING LAW

More than 370 years before Massachusetts put a statewide kibosh on smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces, Boston’s legislators let their anti-smoking stance be known. In 1632, the Massachusetts General Court put a ban on smoking in public places; in 1635, they outlawed the sale of tobacco. Unfortunately, neither action stuck—both laws were repealed in 1638. Fun, albeit unrelated, fact: from 1659 to 1681, Boston lawmakers also put a ban on celebrating Christmas!

2. FIRST PUBLIC PARK

In addition to being one of the city’s most photographed locations, Boston Common is also one of the country’s most historic al fresco spots, as it is America’s first public park. In 1634, colonists purchased the 44-acre space for the whopping price of 30 pounds. Originally utilized as a place for grazing cattle, the Common would come to adopt various other purposes over the years, including becoming the go-to spot for public hangings and a camp for British troops just before the American Revolution, before becoming the popular greenspace it is today. 

3. FIRST PUBLIC GARDEN

Not to be outdone, in 1859—225 years after Boston Common was established—land was set aside for what would become the country’s first public garden, the aptly named Public Garden. Located adjacent to Boston Common, the flora-and-fauna-filled public space serves as the backdrop for numerous weddings. And is also where you can hop aboard one of the city’s famous Swan Boats (which first set sail in 1877). 

4. FIRST PUBLIC SCHOOL

In 1635, the Boston Latin School was founded as the first public school in America, which welcomed boys from every social strata. In 1972, more than 300 years after its opening, Boston Latin accepted its first female students. The school, which is still in operation, counts Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock among its alumni. (Benjamin Franklin was a dropout.)

5. FIRST COLLEGE

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In 1636, one year after Boston Latin opened its doors, Boston kept its focus on education moving when the country’s first college was established in Cambridge with a little school known as Harvard (originally Harvard College, now Harvard University). You may have heard of it—eight U.S. Presidents have earned degrees there. 

6. FIRST PRINTING PRESS

Two years after Harvard welcomed its first class of students, Boston welcomed a revolutionary new device: a printing press. In 1638, Reverend Joseph Glover, his wife, and his trusty assistant, Stephen Daye, brought some printing equipment from England to America with the plan of setting up a printing shop in the colonies. When Glover died at sea, his widow took over the press and Daye took over the operation. “The first thing printed was the freemen's oath; the next was an almanac made for New England by Mr. William Pierce, mariner; the next was the Psalms newly turned into verse," then-Governor John Winthrop stated at the time. A few years later, Mrs. Glover married the president of Harvard, Henry Dunster, and the printing press became his property, which he transferred to the school. And so began the publishing business in America.

7. FIRST NEWSPAPER

Fifty-two years after the first printing press was set up, Boston also published the country’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestik, in 1690. Sure, its title was clunky, but it got the job done—until publisher Benjamin Harris had the audacity to preconceive the whole “freedom of the press” concept and report that England’s military forces had formed an alliance with “miserable” savages, a story that led to him being forced to fold the operation four days later. In 1704, the first regularly published American newspaper, The Boston News-Letter, also got off the ground in Beantown.

8. FIRST POST OFFICE

Taking a cue from the European tradition of utilizing cafes and taverns as mail depositories, Richard Fairbanks’ Boston tavern became the country’s first post office in 1639. And while it may have been too early to have one of those fun automated machines you see today, colonial letter-posters had at least one distinct advantage over us: beer! 

Boston can also take half the credit for the first U.S. mail route. In 1673, New York Governor Francis Lovelace established a monthly mail route to run between New York and Boston. Though the service didn’t last long, the route that was traveled—known still as Old Boston Post Road—is littered with historic landmarks that you can visit today. 

9. FIRST UFO SIGHTING

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In 1639, Boston co-founder and then-Governor John Winthrop made some detailed notes in his journal about a rather strange incident that would come to be known as the country’s first UFO sighting. “In this year, one James Everell, a sober, discreet man, and two others, saw a great light in the night at Muddy River,” Winthrop wrote. “When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine: it ran as swift as an arrow towards Charlton [Charlestown], and so up and down [for] about two or three hours. They were come down in their lighter about a mile, and, when it was over, they found themselves carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from. Diverse and other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place.” Take that, Roswell. 

10. FIRST BROTHEL

Alice Thomas is not the kind of pioneering woman you likely learned about in your grade school history class, and with good reason: her claim to fame is that she founded America’s first known house of prostitution in 1672, an occupation that earned her the nickname “Massachusetts Bay Madam.”

11. FIRST LIGHTHOUSE

Originally built in 1716, Boston Light—located on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor—is America’s first lighthouse. Though the original structure was overtaken and eventually destroyed by British troops during the American Revolution, it was rebuilt in 1783 and has stood as a beacon of tribute to the city’s history ever since.

12. FIRST CHOCOLATE FACTORY

As far back as 1765, chocolate was unofficially considered a staple of the American diet—which is when John Hannon opened the country’s first chocolate factory. It sold blocks of chocolate that could be ground and mixed into boiling water for drinking. In 1780, James Baker took over the company and really helped to brand Baker’s Chocolate. The factory remained within the Baker family until 1895; today, it’s a division of Kraft Foods. 

13. FIRST BLACK SCHOOL

Thanks to Boston’s Museum of African American History, you can still pay a visit to the Abiel Smith School, the first school built specifically for the education of black children in 1835. The Beacon Hill museum also provides access to the African Meeting House, the oldest standing church built by free black citizens in 1806 (and a National Historic Landmark). The structures are two of the final stops on the Black Heritage Trail. 

14. FIRST ICE EXPORTERS

If there’s one thing New England has an abundance of—at least in the winter months—it’s snow and ice. This gave budding Boston entrepreneur Frederic Tudor an idea: Why not package the cold stuff and ship it off to much warmer climates where it could be used for myriad purposes, from cooling drinks to comforting sick patients? And so, in 1806, with the help of his brother William, Frederic set up the Tudor Ice Company and began shipping it around the world, thus inventing a market for, well, ice. No wonder they called him “The Ice King.”

15. FIRST SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND

After visiting Paris’ Royal Institution for the Young Blind, the world’s first school dedicated to the education of blind children, Dr. John Fisher returned to America determined to create a similar establishment at home. In 1832, the Perkins School for the Blind (then known as the New England Asylum for the Blind) opened its doors to students for the first time, operating out of the Boston family home of its first director, Samuel Gridley Howe. In 1912, the school relocated to its current campus in nearby Watertown, from where it now helps to develop programs for Perkins institutions and affiliates in more than 60 countries. 

16. FIRST POLICE FORCE

In 1630, Boston was home to the first system of law enforcement in America, with watchmen and constables. Two hundred years later, England introduced a new concept to the world: a dedicated police force. Created as a way to prevent crime, and not just respond to it, Philadelphia tested out the practice in 1833 with an independent police force. But it was the city of Boston that established the first true police force, one that was set up with day police and a night watch, in 1838.

17. FIRST MAJOR MUNICIPAL LIBRARY

Founded in 1848, the Boston Public Library is the country’s first major free municipal library. After opening in a former schoolhouse on March 20, 1854 (with approximately 16,000 books in its collection), the BPL relocated to Copley Square in 1895, to a building that architect Charles Follen described as a “palace for the people.” It is still the BPL’s home to this day. 

18. FIRST SUBWAY SYSTEM

City of Boston Archives, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

On the morning of September 1, 1897, more than 100 people arrived at Boston’s Park Street train station to be the first commuters in the country to ride on what was then a brand-new mode of transport: a subway. By the end of the day, more than 100,000 people would get to experience a subway ride for the very first time. 

19. FIRST DISPOSABLE RAZOR

One need look no further than the stadium in which the New England Patriots play to understand the importance the Gillette name holds in the Boston area. But it’s a biggie to the world at large as well, as it was King Camp Gillette and MIT grad William Nickerson who successfully developed the first disposable razor blade in 1901, and revolutionized the art of shaving. 

20. FIRST WORLD SERIES

In 1903, the very first World Series took place, in which the Boston Americans were pitted against (and beat) the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maybe their hometown advantage helped as four of the series’ games (including the first three) were played on Boston’s home turf. 

21. FIRST NHL TEAM

The National Hockey League (NHL) was hardly a brand-new outfit when the Boston Bruins joined up with them in 1924 (it was founded in 1917). But what made the team’s introduction into the league so monumental is that they were the first American NHL team. The Chicago Blackhawks joined up in 1926.

22. FIRST ORGAN TRANSPLANT

On December 23, 1954, Doctors Joseph Murray and David Hume completed the first living-related organ transplant when they transplanted a kidney from Ron Herrick into his twin brother, Richard, at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham and Women’s). Eight years later, Murray and Hume completed the same surgery, but this time utilizing the kidney of a deceased donor. In 1990, Murray was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in the transplantation field. 

23. FIRST SUCCESSFUL IN-UTERO CARDIAC IMPLANT

Boston was the site of yet another medical breakthrough in 2006, when a team of 16 specialists performed heart surgery on Grace VanDerwerken—while she was a fetus still in utero. Their job was to thread a lifesaving stent, which they completed successfully at Children’s Hospital Boston. “It's been a miracle,” Grace's mother, Angela VanDerwerken, said at the time. “She has an amazing outcome now.” 

24. FIRST FULL FACE TRANSPLANT

In 2008, construction worker Dallas Wiens suffered severe burns to his head when a piece of machinery he was operating crashed into a power line. Three years later, following 22 surgeries to smooth out his skin and prepare for surgery, the 25-year-old became the first person to successfully undergo a full face transplant in America, which took place at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Burn Center. “Fifteen years ago a face transplant was science fiction,” Wiens told ABC affiliate WFAA. “What's going to happen in the next 15 years? I've got a lot of life left.”

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Delightful Photo Series Celebrates Britain’s Municipal Trash Cans
Harry Trimble
Harry Trimble

Not all trash cans are alike. In the UK, few know this better than Harry Trimble, the brains behind #govbins, a photo project that aims to catalog all the trash can designs used by local governments across Britain.

Trimble, a 29-year-old designer based in South London, began the series in 2016, when he noticed the variation in trash can design across the cities he visited in the UK. While most bins are similar sizes and shapes, cities make trash cans their own with unique graphics and unusual colors. He started to photograph the cans he happened to see day-to-day, but the project soon morphed beyond that. Now, he tries to photograph at least one new bin a week.

A bright blue trash can reads ‘Knowsley Council: Recycle for Knowsley.’
Knowsley Village, England

“I got impatient,” Trimble says in an email to Mental Floss. “Now there’s increasingly more little detours and day trips” to track down new bin designs, he says, “which my friends, family and workmates patiently let me drag them on.” He has even pulled over on the road just to capture a new bin he spotted.

So far, he’s found cans that are blue, green, brown, black, gray, maroon, purple, and red. Some are only one color, while others feature lids of a different shade than the body of the can. Some look very modern, with minimalist logos and city website addresses, Trimble describes, “while others look all stately with coats of arms and crests of mythical creatures.”

A black trash can features an 'H' logo.
Hertsmere, England

A blue trash can reads ‘South Ribble Borough Council: Forward with South Ribble.’
South Ribble, England

A green trash can with a crest reads ‘Trafford Council: Food and Garden Waste Only.’
Trafford, Greater Manchester, England

Trimble began putting his images up online in 2017, and recently started an Instagram to show off his finds.

For now, he’s “more than managing” his one-can-a-week goal. See the whole series at govbins.uk.

All images by Harry Trimble

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Why a Train Full of New York City Poop Was Stranded in Alabama for Two Months
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Residents of Parrish, Alabama probably aren't too fond of New Yorkers right now. That’s because the town is currently home to a full trainload of poop courtesy of the Big Apple, as Bloomberg reports. Some 200 shipping containers of treated sewage have been stuck in Parrish for more than two months while the town takes landfill operators to court.

New York City doesn't keep its own sewage sludge to itself, and it hasn't for decades. In the 1980s, New York City was dumping its "biosolids"—the solids left over from sewage treatment, i.e., your poop—into the Atlantic Ocean, where it settled on the bottom of the sea floor in a thick film stretching over 80 square nautical miles. When the government banned the practice of dumping waste straight into the ocean, the city had to get creative, finding a way to get rid of the 1200 tons of biosolids produced there every day.

Enter the poop train. As a 2013 Radiolab episode taught us (we highly recommend you listen for yourself), treated sludge was eventually shipped out to other states to use as fertilizer in the 1990s. After farmers in Colorado began noticing better growth and fewer pests in the fields they grew with New York City's finest sewer sludge, growers in other states began clamoring to take the big-city poop by the train-full, too. That tide has turned, though, and now no one wants the city's poop. Because of the cost of running the program, the train to Colorado stopped in 2010.

Now, biosolids are instead shipped to landfills upstate and in places like Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to The Wall Street Journal. And Alabama. For more than a year, the Big Sky landfill near Parrish has been accepting New York City biosolids, and the locals who have to deal with trainloads of rotting waste aren’t happy.

Normally, the sludge would be loaded onto trucks and then driven the last stretch to get to the landfill. But Parrish and its nearby neighbor of West Jefferson aren't interested in playing host to those messy poop transfers anymore. As the two towns take the landfill operators to court over it, the trains are stuck where they are, next to Parrish's Little League baseball fields. The trainload of sludge is blocked from either being sent to the landfill or back to New York City. While the city has stopped shipping more waste to Big Sky, it essentially said "no takebacks" regarding what they've already sent south. Short of a legal decision, that poop isn't moving.

Needless to say, the residents of Parrish would really, really like to resolve this before summer hits.

Update: Parrish residents can officially breathe easy. The last of the sludge has now been removed from the town, and Big Sky has ended its operation there, according to a Facebook post from Mayor Heather Hall. The containers that remain have been emptied of their smelly cargo and will be removed sometime before Friday, April 20.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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